Study Guide

Agamemnon Wisdom and Knowledge

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Wisdom and Knowledge

(Watchman): "My real wish however, when the house's lord has come, is to clasp his well-loved hand in mine. The rest, I keep silent: a great ox is treading on my tongue – but the house itself, if it got a voice, would speak very plainly; I talk willingly to those who know, and for those who do not know, I choose to forget." (34-39)

These are some of the most famous lines in Aeschylus's play. But what the heck do they mean? The Watchman claims he is unable to speak; then, he says that he would speak willingly to people who already know what he's talking about. What's the deal with this? One explanation would be that Clytemnestra's rulership has created a culture of fear in Argos; thus, the Watchman is unable to speak because he fears being punished. This might also explain why he only wants to talk to "those who know"; if the people he's talking to already agree with him, then he won't have to worry about being reported to the authorities and punished for uttering thoughts hostile to the regime. But is fear the only issue in play here? As you read through the other quotes in this section, you'll notice that one of Agamemnon's major themes is whether or not learning only happens through suffering. If learning did only happen through suffering, then this would be another reason for the Watchman to remain silent. What would be the point of him communicating if only those who have suffered what he has suffered are capable of understanding him?

(Chorus to Clytemnestra): "Say about this what is both possible
and rightful; acknowledge and heal our concern here" (97-98)

Here, the Chorus acknowledges further difficulties of communication. Not only is communication limited by human knowledge, as the Chorus indicates when referring to what it is "possible" to say; it is also limited by questions of social appropriateness. Thus, there may be some things that Clytemnestra knows, but which are not "rightful" for her to communicate. Which of these two barriers to communication plays a more important role in Agamemnon? Or are they about the same?

(Chorus): "[A] man crying triumph for Zeus
will meet with wisdom totally –
Zeus who put men on wisdom's road,
who gave 'Suffer and learn'
Misery from pain remembered drips;
instead of sleep before the heart; good sense
comes even to the unwilling." (174-181)

If you remember only one thing from Aeschylus's play, it should be the phrase "Suffer and learn" (pathei mathos in the original Greek). This can also be translated as "Experience and learn," or, in more contemporary terms, "You learn through experience." But the idea of "suffering" still remains present. This connected to the idea of language and communication. If the Chorus is right about this, then communication is essentially impossible. Think about it: if the only way you can learn something is through experience, what's the point of my communicating it to you? But does the Chorus actually say that this is the only way for mortals to learn? Not exactly. What they say is in fact pretty vague: Zeus gave this principle "authority." This could mean that it holds true in some cases and doesn't in others. One thing you should always be alert for in reading Aeschylus's play is when learning happens only through suffering, and when it happens through other means.

(Chorus): "What followed, I neither saw nor do I say;
but Calchas' skills did not go unfulfilled.
Justice weighs down the scale for some to suffer and learn.
You may hear the future when it happens;
until it does, farewell to it! – or it's the same
as sorrowing too soon:
it will come sharp and clear, rising with dawn's rays." (248-254)

These words of the Chorus come not long after their first statement of the principle that learning comes from suffering, a major threat to communication. The fact that they are repeating this idea in such quick succession provides a good clue about how important it is. But what about the difference this time around? What is the effect of saying that "Justice" makes people suffer and learn, instead of Zeus? Is it simply because Zeus is in charge of Justice? (You'll have to look elsewhere in the play to figure this one out.) In any case, the idea of learning through suffering definitely fits well with the end of this quotation, when the Chorus says people shouldn't worry about the future until it happens. If you only learn through suffering, this makes total sense: how can you know anything about the future until you've suffered through it? Try to keep this passage in mind when looking at the other quotations; this section makes clear the connection between the theme of "Suffer and learn" and the theme of prophecy, especially as illustrated by Cassandra.

(Chorus): "I am not sorry to be convinced by what you say; the old are always young enough to learn readily." (583-584)

With these words, the Chorus signals that it believes the Herald's account that Troy has fallen. How does this fit in with the idea expressed elsewhere in the play, that one learns from "suffering," a.k.a. "experience"? The Chorus, after all, has not learned about Troy's fall from experience; instead, its members have been convinced by a detailed report provided by a credible witness (the Herald). Or is this a case of "learning" at all? When Aeschylus is talking about "learning," does that mean the same thing as consenting to believe or disbelieve somebody's account? Does "learning" for Aeschylus mean acquiring facts (as the Chorus does here) or wisdom? What is the difference between facts and wisdom? These are all issues you should be thinking about in reading this play.

(Chorus to Herald): "[Clytemnestra] spoke that way to you, words which if you understand them with the help of clear interpreters, appear specious." (615-617)

These words present another perspective on the theme of "Suffer and learn." Specifically, they show how words can be deceptive to those who do have not experienced the facts behind them. Clytemnestra's words to the Herald project an image of a loving, devoted wife, eager to see her husband. But the Chorus, who has lived under Clytemnestra's command for the past ten years, knows that she isn't all she appears to be. But are the Chorus's words enough to convince the Herald? If not, does this suggest that he, too, has to suffer before he learns?

(Chorus): "But you must tell me, Herald: I wish to know of Menelaus – whether he has actually returned home with you, brought safely back; he is a power dear to this land."
(Herald): "Impossible I should report what is false as good, for friends to harvest for the long future!"
(Chorus): "Then I wish you may give excellent news and be telling the truth! Their separation is not easy to conceal."
(Herald): "The man has disappeared from the Achaean fleet, himself together with his ship. I tell no falsehoods."
(Chorus): "Was it after he had set sail in clear view of Ilion, or did a storm snatch him from the fleet, heavy on all alike?"
(Herald): "You hit the mark like a top archer, and describe long suffering concisely."
(Chorus): "Was there word of him rumoured by other sailors, as alive or dead?"
(Herald): "No one knows enough to repeat clear news, except the Sun which nurtures life on earth." (615-633)

Here we see the limits of human knowledge: the Herald cannot accurately communicate what he has not personally experienced. He knows Menelaus has disappeared, but he can't say anything further. According to him, there is only one perspective that allows for experience, and hence knowledge, of everything: that of the Sun.

(Chorus, to Cassandra): "It's you [Clytemnestra]'s speaking to! She's pausing, but what she says is clear. Since you've been caught in the fatal net, please obey her if you're going to obey; but perhaps you'll disobey."
(Clytemnestra): "Unless she's like a swallow and owns an unintelligible barbarian tongue, I am trying to persuade her by speaking words within her comprehension." […]
(Chorus): "The stranger seems to need a clear interpreter; her manner is like a wild animal's just captured."
(Clytemnestra): "She's mad, and obeying wrong thoughts, like one who comes here from a city just captured and does not know how to endure the bridle before foaming out her temper in blood. I tell you, I am not going to throw more words away and have them scorned." (1048-1052, 1062-1068)

It's hard to think of a more basic communicative issue than that of language. Here, when Clytemnestra is unable to make Cassandra obey her and come into the house, she assumes it must be because Cassandra doesn't speak Greek. The interesting thing here is that, in Homer, the main source for all information about the Trojan War, the Greeks and the Trojans appear to speak the same language. Why do you think Aeschylus would have made a point of portraying the Trojans as speaking a different language here? As it turns out, of course, Cassandra does understand Greek. But this still doesn't explain her hesitation before going into the house. In fact, as we are about to learn, she has had a vision revealing the horrible past of the house and Atreus's crime. Does this count as learning through suffering? Or is it something entirely different?

(Cassandra): "Oh, the wedding, the wedding of our Paris
destroying his dearest!
Oh, Scamander, ancestral waters!
Then, I was reared and had my growing
along your verges, wretch that I am;
but now, it seems, I shall soon be singing my prophecies
along the banks of Acheron and by Cocytus' stream."
(Chorus): "What words are these you utter, and which are all too clear?
An infant child would understand on hearing.
I am stricken; your bloody fate bites deep
as your song whimpers and cries at fortune's harsh pain;
and it shatters me to listen." (1156-1166)

Here we see Cassandra prophesying her own death. The same question we asked about the previous quotation is relevant here. Is prophecy a form of learning through suffering, or something entirely different? Also, it is noteworthy that the Chorus appears to have no problem understanding her words. Does this prove that learning CAN happen through communication, and not just through experience? But have the Chorus members really learned anything? It isn't like they actually do anything to save her and Agamemnon? What counts as learning anyway?

(Chorus to Cassandra): "But I marvel at you: you were born and bred across the sea in a city which has a different language and you hit the mark with what you say, just as if you had been standing by." (Cassandra): "Apollo god of seers set me in this office." (1199-1202)

Now we learn that Cassandra's power of prophecy is a divine gift from the god Apollo. How does this affect our understanding of the theme of learning through suffering? Here's one way of thinking about it. Let's say that prophecy really is a different way of learning which doesn't require that a person have suffered through or experienced what they're learning about. But if prophecy is a gift from the gods that only a few people receive, does that really change anything for the majority of people? If only a slim minority of people are prophets, "Suffer and learn" could still be the rule for most of humanity, right?

(Chorus): "And did the two of you duly come to making a child?"
(Cassandra): "Though I had consented to Loxias, I cheated him."
(Chorus): "Had you already been possessed by the skill the god inspires?"
(Cassandra): "I was already prophesying all their disasters to the citizens."
(Chorus): "So how were you unscathed by Loxias's anger?"
(Cassandra): "I could convince nobody of anything, after I committed that sin against him."
(Chorus): "Yet we at least think that you prophesy convincingly." (1202-1213)

Here's another problem with Cassandra's prophecy: when she refused to sleep with Apollo (after he had already given her the gift of prophecy), he put a curse on her so that nobody would believe her prophecies. But how come the Chorus claims to believe her then? Does this mean that Apollo's curse didn't work? Or is the Chorus just mistaken when they think that they have understood her?

(Cassandra): "And it's all the same if nothing of mine persuades you, of course: the future will come; and you will soon be at my side to pity and call me too true a prophet."
(Chorus): "I understood Thyestes' feast upon his children's flesh, and shuddered, and fear possesses me now I have heard things that truly are no images; but when I listen to the rest, I stumble and run off track."
(Cassandra): "I say that you will look upon the death of Agamemnon."
(Chorus): "Still your tongue, you wretched woman! Say nothing inauspicious!" (1239-1247)

Check this out: Cassandra is able to convince the Chorus of what has already happened (the crime of Atreus), but not of what is about to happen (the death of Agamemnon). What does this say about communication and the theme of learning through suffering?

(Chorus): "Which man is to bring this evil thing about?"
(Cassandra): "You have indeed been thrown a long way off the course my oracles are running!"
(Chorus): "I did not understand the contrivance the accomplisher will use."
(Cassandra): "And yet I understand the Greek language only too well."
(Chorus): "So do the Pythian decrees, but they are still hard to understand." (1251-1255)

Like so much else in the play, many of the communication problems in this exchange boil down to the issue of pathei mathos. Because of their past experience (and, we would probably say today, cultural stereotypes), the Chorus assumes that whoever kills Agamemnon will be a man. Cassandra, however, points out that they're going off-course. Then, Cassandra throws in a little jab at them, basically saying, "What's the big deal; you can't understand what I'm saying? At least I'm speaking your language! Don't take that for granted; I was born in Troy, you know." This is pretty funny on Cassandra's part, but then the Chorus actually makes a really good point: oracles (the phrase "Pythian decrees" refers to the words of the oracle of Delphi) speak in Greek too, but they still have to be interpreted. Based on the other quotations in this section, what do you think the need to interpret oracles says about the issues of language, communication, and the human capacity to learn?

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